Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman

A couple of weeks from now, saxophonist Sonny Rollins will release his new album, Road Shows Vol. 2, which includes a widely publicized meeting with Ornette Coleman recorded at Rollins's eightieth birthday concert at The Beacon Theatre last year.  You can preview the entire album on NPR's website here.  And here's the promotional video:

Rollins's and Coleman's twenty-minute rendition of "Sonnymoon for Two" was heralded as the only documented meeting of arguably the two most influential living jazz saxophonists.  It's disappointing.  For the first four minutes or so, Rollins plays a series of short motivic fragments with lots of pregnant pauses, evidently trying to coax some interaction out of drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride.  He then announces the un-named guest artist, who doesn't arrive on cue.  So Rollins plays another solo, but it sounds like he's basically killing time with some very simple half-hearted riffs, wondering why Coleman hasn't materialized.

About eight minutes in, Coleman walks on stage, clearly—and understandably—not really warmed up, and not used to playing a twelve-bar blues (in fact it's been years, maybe decades, since Coleman's ever played a composition by anyone but himself in public).  Coleman's solo mostly implies an E-major tonality, whereas the tune's in Bb; he plays a lot of rather corny blues licks and quotes "What a Friend We Have In Jesus."  The rhythm section—especially McBride—adapts to Coleman, but the altoist sounds uncharacteristically ill-at-ease.  About five minutes later, Rollins re-enters, now playing more "out"—this is probably the most compelling segment of the entire performance—he finds his groove a little more and plays some intriguing transpositional sequences.  But before long he reverts to playing the head—as he often does when his inspiration flags in concert—only to be interrupted by Coleman, who persists with his hackneyed E-major bluesy figures and quotes the same hymn as before.

Sixteen minutes in, Rollins re-enters, exploring some more adventurous terrain but seeming rather aimless and lacking in fluency at times—at one point he throws in a snippet of Rodgers and Hart's "Manhattan."  By this point the blues changes seem almost to be besides the point.  Eventually Rollins finds his way back to the head, and Coleman joins him, still somewhat tentatively.

This is a historic meeting between two great artists, but neither of them are remotely near their best.  I haven't listened to the rest of the album yet, but here are a few thoughts on why Rollins's live performances are notoriously uneven—sometimes incredible, sometimes almost excruciatingly subpar.  Rollins lives alone in rural upstate New York.  He rarely goes out to hear live music, and according to this 2009 interview, he virtually never listens to recordings.  From day to day, the only music he regularly hears is himself practicing at home.  And he only plays a couple of dozen concerts a year.  So when he steps on stage for a concert—or at least, when he shows up to a sound check—he may not have played with his band or heard much music for weeks or even months.  Unsurprisingly, it often takes him a while to get warmed up.  When he does manage to hit his stride, he can perform absolutely brilliantly, but he doesn't always manage to get there.

On top of that, Rollins is ruthlessly self-critical: check out this public interview with Gary Giddins, in which the saxophonist listens to his brilliant 1955 recording of "There's No Business Like Showbusiness" and describes the experience as "excruciating" (at 25:00).  He also compared the experience of listening to the tapes of his 2001 Boston concert to "Abu Ghraib."  When it comes to selecting live tracks for release, he's not a good judge of himself.

On the live "Sonnymoon for Two" with Coleman, Rollins isn't on his game, and neither is Coleman.  The track really ought not to have been released; it does neither musician justice.  With any luck, the rest of the album will be better.  And hopefully it will also be better than Road Shows Vol 1—not a single track on that album captured Rollins in top form, even though it received rave reviews.  So long as Rollins is still around to decide which of his recordings get released, you're not likely to hear what he's really capable of these days unless you're lucky enough to catch him live on a good night...  [Follow-up on this topic here]

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